Sunday, March 4, 2018

Iona 72, Manhattan 60: 5 Observations

Schadrac Casimir scored 18 points against Manhattan, but he was just one of Iona's impact players in MAAC tournament quarterfinal victory. (Photo by the Ionian)

ALBANY, NY -- One of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference's oldest rivalries was reprised in the last of its four tournament quarterfinal matchups, and for the seventh straight time and eighth in the last nine meetings, the end result was the same.

Iona continued its winning ways against Manhattan on Saturday, defeating the Jaspers by the final of 72-60 to reach the semifinal round at the Times Union Center for the eighth straight season. The Gaels will next face Saint Peter's Sunday evening at 7 p.m., 40 minutes away from what would be an unprecedented sixth consecutive conference championship game appearance. Before the meeting with the Peacocks, a team against whom Iona swept its regular-season series, we leave you with a handful of takeaways as the reigning MAAC champions live to fight another day, while their opposition is left to ponder what could have been:

1) Familiarity with the terrain paid off.
Iona's perennial retooling usually results in a lower degree of continuity when compared to some of its MAAC brethren, but Zach Lewis is no ordinary newcomer to the maroon and gold jersey.

An all-conference talent during his two years at Canisius, the fifth-year senior returned to the lineup in a big way following a two-game absence due to illness, leading all scorers with 23 points and supplementing his offense with a team-leading nine rebounds.

"It played a big role," Lewis said of his prior MAAC tournament experience with the Golden Griffins, which; coincidentally, included a semifinal meeting with the Gaels when he was a freshman in 2013-14. "It's postseason play. We've just gotta be ready. You want to be experienced. I'm with a team that's done it before, so we're just ready to go, ready to perform."

"It felt good to be back," he added. "But we're here for a purpose, so we're just ready to go."

2) Making an impact without making an impact.
Rickey McGill was held scoreless Saturday, only taking five shots in the victory. But the junior point guard, a former verbal commitment to Manhattan, asserted himself in the value department, dishing out six assists and registering five steals on the defensive end to reprise his role as the Gaels' emotional leader.

"It helped tremendously," head coach Tim Cluess said of McGill's contributions as the primary facilitator. "He handled the ball -- he and Zach handled the ball against that pressure -- and they were tremendous out there the way they controlled the pace of the game for us. Rickey's a pit bull, and his mentality throughout the game rubs off on all the other players. Whether he scores 40 like he did a couple of nights ago (last Sunday against Rider) -- I think he'd rather score zero and win than score 40 and lose -- that's what I really love about him and my whole team."

3) A page out of Manhattan's playbook.
Jaspers head coach Steve Masiello has often stressed his desire to take a team's top player(s) out of the game and dare the opposition's supporting cast to beat him and his team, and on Saturday, that was exactly what Iona did. The Gaels forced fifth-year senior Rich Williams into an uncharacteristic 3-for-17 night in his collegiate swan song, and bottled up point guard Zavier Turner to the tune of a 4-for-11 effort. Iona conceded 30 points and 18 rebounds to Zane Waterman and Pauly Paulicap against a weaker front line, but by rendering the Manhattan guards into shells of their normal selves, the damage had already been done.

4) Changing of the guard.
When accepting the MAAC's Defensive Player of the Year award Friday, Pauly Paulicap remarked that he was merely trying to do his job and protect the culture that Manhattan has ridden to a pair of conference championships under Masiello. The sophomore forward's commitment to being a steward of the Manhattan brand was on full display before the ball was even tipped Saturday night, as he led the Jaspers through warmups and took notice of the team not being vocal enough in their final preparation.

"We all know what Pauly is and what he represents," Masiello said of his first-ever team captain. "It's a big offseason for him. I think he's got a lot of talent and a lot of potential, and now it's time for him to get to work and show what he can do these next two years."

"I don't necessarily look at this as a loss," Paulicap said of Saturday's final score. "I learned from everything that we went through this season, so I'm just hoping I can learn from it and turn it into a positive for next season."

5) Where does Manhattan go from here?
With two years left on his contract, speculation as to Masiello's future in Riverdale will start to heat up if the Jaspers, who have gone 37-57 in the three years since their last MAAC championship, are not able to maintain their perch among the top half of the standings in the league next season. That, however, is another story for another time.

Manhattan must now shift its attention to replacing a quartet of seniors in Williams, Turner, Waterman, and Calvin Crawford, each of whom were almost irreplaceable to the program in different ways. Aside from Paulicap and junior Tom Capuano, sophomores Bud Mack and Ebube Ebube will be counted on to ramp up their production for a team that, as of now, will return just six players that saw minutes this season. Freshman Warren Williams, a St. Benedict's Prep product who redshirted this past season and has been described by Masiello as a load in the paint, will likely join the rotation, but the group of incumbents has its work cut out for them by and large.

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